Just returned from a trip to Fort Worth, visiting my family, and incidentally my archive of Early Works, which lives in a storage unit down by the railroad tracks. The verdict is in: as a feckless young art student, I had No Talent. Yack. I mean it.
Mom and my aunt Prudence were splendid; they helped me haul the piles of cracked, crumbling, dusty, dirty, decaying artworks out of their tomb, unroll them, take vile snapshots with a digital camera for the Historical Record, and then pile them into a dumpster. I didn't throw away everything, just the extreme monstrosities that made me cringe in horror and shame. Actually I even saved one or two of those, as a reminder. They remind me, principally, to be kind.
Because I can't begin to describe how bad those student paintings were. Suffice it to say that I had no notion of color, composition, light, surface, paint quality, line quality, or conceptual content. My student work had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, except for a certain cheerful willingness to keep flinging paint around, in the absence of all external evidence that this process would lead somewhere fruitful.
Funnily enough, I don't find this revelation of my profound untalentedness to be the slightest bit depressing. Instead I feel an expansive sense of peace, liberation and connection. It's difficult to describe.
I'm not one of those PC egalitarians who thinks that talent is an elitist myth. It does exist, and I've seen it. There are people born with grace, skill, vision, and a discipline which expresses itself ceaselessly and without apparent effort; it is if they spent a thousand lifetimes in intensive practice and study, and were born into this body already possessing a mastery of medium and profundity of expression.
I repeat; I am not one of those people. I started off as a committed painter with nothing more than an overpowering sense that there were things I needed to learn through painting, and things I needed to express. I had only the vaguest idea what those things were; if I'd known, I wouldn't have needed to paint. I waged epic battles in defense of my right to be callow, immature and clueless. Anything I may have achieved in the way of worthwhile art has been done the hard way, through trial and error, discipline and practice, and sheer irrational pigheadedness.
Why does this give me such a sense of peace? Well, for starters, I'm no longer the slightest bit upset with all those faculties, arts organizations, committees, galleries and philanthropists who turned down my persistent applications. They were obviously people of taste who knew exactly what they were doing, and I commend them. I didn't need or deserve their help; any assistance from then would have only fed my unrealistically inflated notions of self.
Furthermore, I feel a warm sense of connection with the vast majority of humanity, also not born with the facility of a Mozart or a Barry McGee. Being perceived as 'gifted' sets you apart; it is isolating and chill. Much is expected of a talented person--success is regarded as automatic, and failure is received with exasperated contempt. Talented people are not judged by the standards of ordinary mortals. They are not expected to be kind, mature, ethical or friendly; if they are any of those things, it's a bonus.
When I expected myself to be talented, I also regarded myself with exasperated contempt, as a separate creature from the rest of humanity, where the usual standards did not apply. This was not a comfortable state of mind in which to exist.
Now I look back and think--well, I'm not talented. I just worked really hard. I worked to earn money, and practiced hard, and studied hard, and thought hard. I improved, really really slowly. I made a lot of messes and wasted a lot of time and money on dead ends, and picked out the one small thing I learned from that dead end and used it later on, to better effect. Now when I look around at how many people have paid good money to hang one of my paintings on their wall, and continue to enjoy it, and don't regret the money spent, I'm very proud of that. It was never a given that this would happen.
Now I look at my future, and think that I will continue doing this, without the burden of thinking that it has to be something special. If I create something beautiful, that will be a joy. If I don't, that's to be expected. I am not talented.